Senators have decision to make with Pageau peaking in contract year

Jean-Gabriel Pageau of the Ottawa Senators. (Jana Chytilova/Getty)

In their 27 years as a reborn NHL franchise, the Ottawa Senators have known their share of fan favourites.

Daniel Alfredsson developed into an iconic Senators captain.

Chris Phillips and Chris Neil were admired for their loyalty and dedication while playing more than 1,000 games each with Ottawa. Jason Spezza, Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat all had their moments.

Over the past five years, an enduring fan darling has been a small centre who has warmed hearts with an ability to rise to every occasion, causing fans to rise from their seats. Now, he’s a pending UFA. What to do, Ottawa? (I say sign him, if possible, but has that ship already sailed? More on that later).

Jean-Gabriel Pageau, a Gatineau, Que., native listed at five-feet-10, 180 pounds — 80 per cent of that his heart — has always battled above his weight as a role player and two-way centre, a clutch performer.

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Already popular for his tenacity, Pageau become a local legend when he scored three goals — while also surrendering a tooth — in a 2013 playoff game against the Montreal Canadiens. That epic performance prompted then-head coach Paul MacLean to quip that the bridges connecting Ottawa to Gatineau should be renamed: “Jean, Gabriel and Pageau.”

No other Senators player in recent years has had his name chanted throughout Canadian Tire Centre like, “Pageau! Pageau, Pageau, Pageau!” (Sung to the tune of ‘Ole’ at the Bell Centre). In 19 regular-season games against Montreal, Pageau has eight goals and four assists, cementing his reputation as a Habs killer.

The first time Jean-Gabriel’s father, Jean, heard those chants his eyes welled with tears. That spring, Pageau helped lead Ottawa to its first playoff series win over an Original Six team, the storied Habs. And he wasn’t done on that front.

In 2017, Pageau exploded in an Eastern Conference semifinal game against the New York Rangers, scoring a hat trick in regulation and then a fourth goal in double overtime. The Senators handled the Rangers in five games and had designs on a trip to the Stanley Cup final until a Game 7 double OT goal by Chris Kunitz of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

To say that Pageau, a fourth-round draft pick by the Senators in 2011, 96th overall, has not eked every ounce of potential out of his small frame would be to sell the man short. Which people did for years. He was a seventh-round selection in the QMJHL draft by Gatineau, after graduating from the Gatineau L’Intrepide, and was better than a point-per-game player in the ‘Q,’ mostly with Gatineau, then with Chicoutimi in 2012 as they added him for a playoff push.

With Pageau, seeing is believing. When the late Bryan Murray, former GM of the Senators, was scouting the Quebec League and a 2011 playoff series between Saint John and Gatineau, he was there largely to watch Jonathan Huberdeau and other prospects. He left saying to his scouts, “get me both No. 11s.”

Huberdeau and Pageau both wore No. 11, Pageau for the hometown Olympiques.

Murray didn’t get a shot at Huberdeau, who went third overall to Florida, but he did find a place for Pageau in a later round, a move he never regretted.

Colleague Roy MacGregor once wrote that Senators winger Andreas Dackell could be nicknamed ‘Duct Tape’ for his versatility. Pageau is equally useful.

He can play up and down the lineup — he was the first-line centre, in a pinch, against the New York Islanders Tuesday. He relishes matchup roles, taking on the best of opposing centres, such as Boston’s Patrice Bergeron.

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Pageau is first over the bench to kill penalties and is a threat to score. His shorthanded goal against the Islanders was his 12th career shortie. In the past six seasons, only Brad Marchand of the Bruins, with 13, has more of those than Pageau.

After scoring twice against the Rangers Monday, and adding another on Tuesday, Pageau ran his goals-scored total to six, which leads the Senators. He also has four assists and is an NHL best plus-15 on a last-place team. That is a differential ten goals better than the next closest Senator, Connor Brown at plus-5.

Combine Pageau’s quiet leadership, his popularity in the room and as a bilingual hockey player, and he is a solid package. Senators head coach D.J. Smith delivers high praise to No. 44, essentially referring to him as a poor man’s Bergeron.

“A player that is smart like him (Pageau) capitalizes on other teams’ mistakes. There’s a lot to be learned there,” says Smith, using the Bruins as a comparison. “To a man, you watch them, if you don’t skate you don’t play.

You’d be crazy not to look at their mould with Bergeron and their leadership and try to morph that. Pageau is our guy and is our leader up front.”

In his best offensive season, 2015-16, Pageau scored 19 goals and had 43 points. He relishes big games, proven by his 12 goals and 16 points in 35 playoff contests. Last season, Pageau was derailed by a training-camp injury — a torn Achilles — and played just 39 games. His bounce back has been beyond expectations.

“You need time after an injury like that to work on your explosiveness, your quickness,” Pageau says, admitting that in the early games back from the injury, his mind didn’t have confidence in his body. “Now it’s all functioning.”

Pageau admits there have been no contract discussions with the Senators.

“No, there are no talks right now and it’s not my main focus to be honest. I barely think about it,” Pageau says. “I’m thinking day-to-day here, trying to give everything I have every day, my 100 per cent, just so I don’t have regrets. I just want to leave everything out there. I take pride every night I wear a Sens jersey right now. So, we’ll see. I’m not too worried about it.”

No regrets?

Wear a Sens jersey right now?

That doesn’t sound like a player who thinks he is going to be here past the trade deadline.

What is Pageau worth on the open market?

Good question. It’s hard to imagine he’s more valuable anywhere than Ottawa, where he is revered and has had myriad roles and opportunities. But what a character addition for a contending team he would be. His current contract pays him $3.4 million with a cap hit of $3.1 million.

With Pageau’s playoff pedigree, general manager Pierre Dorion would have no trouble moving this pending UFA at the deadline for a prospect and/or a draft pick, but if he can get him signed for the next four years at a reasonable cost, why not keep him?

Not everybody has to be shipped out in a rebuild. The team will need quality mentors to work with the young players, and it matters to have a veteran like Pageau drafted and developed here. Can anyone think of a better role model than Pageau?

On the flip side, if Pageau wants to test the open market in the summer, given what has transpired in Ottawa over the past year, no one could blame him. His loss would be outsized for a third-line centre, which is where he slots in here in the future.

There is only one homegrown player left who was drafted earlier than Pageau and that is defenceman Mark Borowiecki, in 2008. Borowiecki is 30 and also a pending UFA. The only other Senator still here from the summer Pageau was drafted is goaltender Craig Anderson, now 38, another soon to be UFA.

Pageau, who was born one month and three days after the Senators won their historic opening game against the Canadiens on Oct. 8, 1992, turns 27 on Remembrance Day.

He is in the prime of his career and figures to be for the next four or five years, wherever those years take place.

Sabourin, Brown improving

Centre Colin White is recovering from his groin injury and is expected to get a conditioning stint with AHL Belleville Friday.

Forward Rudolf Balcers, out with a knee injury, skated with the Senators Thursday while wearing a non-contact jersey.

Centre Logan Brown, out with an upper-body injury, is skating on his own and should be practising next week.

Winger Scott Sabourin is recovering from a frightening collision with David Backes in Boston last Saturday that left Sabourin knocked out and broke his nose.

“He’s doing a lot better,” Smith says. “It’s more the cuts, the nose that are sore more than anything. There aren’t a ton of symptoms outside of that. We’ll be cautious with it.”

Rookie forward Jonathan Davidsson was recalled from Belleville Thursday and is set to make his NHL debut against the Los Angeles Kings.

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